Short bio: Computer Scientist, FOSS supporter (read more)
Tux Machines (TM)-specific
I went to distrowatch and looked for the 5 smallest distros I could find. I found my old pal Damn Small Linux, new comers Puppy Linux, Feather Linux, BeatrIX, and Sam.
I sampled each of those listed above and will share my thoughts and screenshots of them with you. I also thought to make it more fair, I'd outline and define some criteria for them to meet. Not scientific, but I chose five areas that I considered important in which a mini distro should excel. Each distro has the opportunity to earn 5 points for each of the 5 areas. Then I will divide that total by 5 to get their final score of between 1 and 5 points.
The smallest in the lot was 50mb, so that was my starting point. In my tests and for the purposes of this article, smaller is better.
Is it easy to boot up and get into a gui? Are the tools and applications readily available and easy to find, and easy to use?
Simply put, how pleasing is it to the eye?
Are the apps included useful and are they useful to a majority of users? Is there something included to complete most any basic task? This area is most simply put, how useful is the distro?
Is the distro stable and are the applications stable? Do they function as designed and complete their tasks?
Damn Small Linux is the coolest thing in my book if for no other reason than it's itty bitty size. To get a fully functional operating system complete with X server in 50 mb is quite the accomplishment. I found it and puppy linux to have met that criteria. damn small linux claims to be able to run light enough to power a 486DX with 16MB of Ram.
dsl is a complete operating system containing a mighty powerful toolbox. in it's gui you'll find office tools such as a spreadsheet, several editors and a couple word processors, as well as graphic manipulation/editing tools. It comes with games, multimedia applications, and system monitoring tools. Included are the means for a harddrive install and even application installation and updating. There are tools for your networking options and connecting to remote desktops, virtual file systems, and even ftp servers. Found are file managers, web browsers, mail and instant messaging clients. Of course it goes without saying, it also comes with a full compliment of commandline tools. Most applications were carefully chosen for their balance of functionality, stability, and size.
Being built upon Knoppix, dsl's hardware detection was good and fairly accurate. Most of my hardware was detected and the correct module was inserted accordingly. My network connection worked automagically, it having used dhcp. The X server booted into a nice looking Fluxbox desktop with 1024x768 resolution.
I found dsl to be fast, stable, fully functional and a wondrous thing. It was my favorite of all the mini-distros I sampled. I've always been a fan and even until a recent harddrive death, had a permanent install of it taking up about 250 mbs. And it's got the coolest name!
Puppy Linux was just a big bag of surprizes from the moment it began to boot until I logged out. This was my first test drive of puppy linux, so perhaps that contributed to my impression. The first notable was the amazing lack of time it took to boot. It had to have been no more than 30 seconds before I was looking at a question about which mouse dev I wanted to use. I choose imps/2 and wondered if it would work, yes it did. It asked did I have a scroll wheel, and within 2 seconds of clicking yes I was presented with a gui.
Upon entering the auto-logged in gui, I was asked which resolution I wanted to use. Choosing 1024x768x16 seemed like a good choice, it adjusted and staring at me was a nice fvwm desktop. The menu reminded me of a cross between kde's and windows', but the start button did come with a cute little puppy icon. Inside that menu was a plethora of software. It's hard to believe this was from a 56mb iso.
My internet connection wasn't enabled automagically, but a simple "dhcpcd" command was all that was needed to surf the internet and even my lan's samba shares.
Import and xwd weren't installed, but xpaint can take screenshots, even if a bit cumbersome. Looking around lo-and-behold there was a menu entry for xpaint gui screenshots. Well, I didn't like all that clicking to get a screenshot and man xpaint opened a browser with the commands I could use.
The menu was chocked full of applications. There were gui apps for about everything from configuring the desktop, monitoring the system, connecting to about everything under the sun, to all sorts of movie and music players. I was throughly impressed. Not only did it have a couple browsers, but it had at least two html editors. It even had a puppy-get software installer. Some of the utilities present were backup to cd, F-Prot virus scanner, and guiTar archiver. Also included was a menu item for a gui mount tool, which was nice because I couldn't get the mount command to work. It kept saying such and such directory didn't exist. I suppose it had to do with it's method of ramfs. But it did find and let me mount a partition/directory in which I could save my screenshots.
Puppy Linux seemed to derive from Debian and came with a 2.4.27 kernel. It was a wonderful wonderful little distro. I was thoroughly impressed, I might have to put that one on it's own partition somewhere. Kudos to the developers.
Feather Linux is the prettiest mini distro so far, also based on Knoppix and comes with a 2.4.27 kernel. A little larger than dsl or puppy weighing in at a 120mb. Like puppy, it boots really fast and asks some configuration questions along the way. Default lang and keyboard are german, I had to specify lang=us at boot. As puppy did it asked what kinda mouse I had and in what resolution I wanted X to run, and in addition it asked about default keymap.
The desktop was just pretty as all get out with cute tux wallpaper and nice icons. Default desktop is fluxbox and it's using a nice matching theme.
It's menus were full of apps, maybe not as much as puppy seemed, but still quite a toolkit. It comes with all the standard applications for web browsing, im, irc, email, ftp, ssh, samba, word processing, image manipulation, various multimedia capabilities, and standard commandline apps and built-ins. It was fast, stable and complete.
The author describes it as "a Linux distribution which runs completely off a CD or a USB pendrive and takes up under 115Mb of space. It is a Knoppix remaster (based on Debian), and tries to include software which most people would use every day on their desktop."
BeatrIX Linux is a whoping 183mb, yet it seemed to have the less to offer. This developer chose to go with a few big heavy apps as opposed to our other candidates who went with a more complete outfit of smaller applications. BeatrIX does come with a browser, an instant messenger, an email and an office app. But they are about the biggest heaviest example of each. Mozilla-Firefox, Gaim, Evolution, and OpenOffice are kinda big and slow applications. I didn't see a graphical file manager. I suppose with 6 full page consoles of binaries tho, it's bound to have had one - just no desktop icon or menu entry for it. To top it off, it's all sitting on Gnome 2.8 and running on a 2.6.7 kernel. It does have a cute start up slogan though: BeatrIX - Linux that purrs.
BeatrIX is named after a cat and the developers stress that it isn't designed for multimedia. They state, "it simply works and is easy to learn and use. Months were spent on designing the desktop to be as usable as possible the first time you insert the BeatrIX CD."
It was slower than it's competition so far, and it's by far not the prettiest. But it does indeed do as it's designed. It's still relatively small, but it won't fit on my mini-cds. All and all, BeatrIX just isn't my cup of tea. I imagine gnome fans might like it though.
Sam Linux "is a bootable Linux-CD based on Mandrakelinux, an installation on harddrive is not necessarily, but possible. Because of the small size of under 210mb it fits on a 8cm-mini-CD and is ideal for carrying in the pocket. Although it is so small, it contains a full graphical desktop environment with office-, internet-, multimedia- and graphics-applications, even some games and a small server-section are there." ...so they say.
It is also the only distro in this round-up that won't run on my desktop computer. It booted, but then locked up as it tried to enter X. In fact it locked up so hard that I had to hit reset...
So, anyway, it will run on my older computer with an ati rage 128 and I was able to gleen some information from there. I wasn't able to get screenshots as it locked up solid as I was trying to su to root. The password is supposed to be "root" according to the site, but it was rejected and on the third try it locked the computer up tight as a drum. I'm not trying anymore.
Sam appears to be using Xfce for it's window manager with gnome commander, velocity, midnight commander, and Xffm listed as file managers. It comes with Dillo and Firefox for web browsing, Sylpheed for email and Pan for newsreading. Included is gaim for instant messaging, Xchat for irc and Skype for voip. Sam is the first one of our minis to use TextMaker for it's word processing, to include a personal finance tool and something to use your bttv card for watching tv. It even comes with gimp and more than just a few games. Also included are the Mandrake Control Center, firestarter and a harddrive installer.
So, all in all, this distro is as buggy as it's roots. I can't recommend Sam Linux as I didn't even get to test drive it much past menu navigation before it locked up.
Luit Linux is another 50mb mini distro based on damn small linux. It's getting long in the tooth as the lastest release I saw was July 2004. It's using a 2.4.22-xfs kernel dated September 2003 underneath an older XFCE. However it did fine on my system, hardware newer than that kernel date.
It booted quickly and performed well. It had some applications for doing basic tasks and all seemed stable except for it's choice in a spreadsheet app. It didn't open when clicked upon. Otherwise it's another adequate mini, although I wasn't highly impressed. I suppose it's stagnating development was a turn-off from the start.
In conclusion, I still like damn small linux the best although puppy linux is a very close second. Seems the points favor feather linux, and it was indeed the prettiest. Any of these three can fill the bill for about any rescue or convenient take along purpose you might have. Beatrix is too big and heavy for no more than it offers and Sam, well, my mama said if you can't say anything nice...